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The Charlie Hebdo attack: Geo-politics, eurocentrism, Islamophobia, and blowback

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. 

Firefighters carry an injured man on a stretcher in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015, after armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving at least one dead according to a police source and "six seriously injured" police officers according to City Hall. (AFP Photo/Philippe Dupeyrat)

The recent violent outrage in Paris that saw cartoonists and other innocents killed is but the latest example of the way in which Muslim extremists nowadays manage to occupy the airwaves and dominate the news broadcasts.

But rather than proving that Islam is just a religion that cannot coexist with modern life and values, a closer look at the origins of Islamic extremism and terrorism betrays its indebtedness to geo-political machinations and the legacy of the Cold War's end in the last decade of the previous century. In particular, the names Zbigniew Brzezinski and Willy Claes appear pivotal in this context.

The spectacular attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the double hostage crisis that followed on Friday have the whole world now suddenly galvanized. The brutal attacks are yet another proof that Islam and the contemporary world are apparently incompatible.

Particularly, but Extremist Islam, that has been the West's enemy of choice ever since then-NATO chief Willy Claes made the official announcement in April 1995: "Islamic militancy has emerged as perhaps the single gravest threat to the NATO alliance and to Western security", since the fall of Communism a few years earlier. In reality, the West and NATO had already been at loggerheads with Islam (and its extremist versions) for more than a decade by that time.

Members of French Gendarmerie are pictured in Corcy, near Villers-Cotterets, north-east of Paris, on January 8, 2015, where the two armed suspects from the attack on French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo were spotted in a gray Clio. (AFP Photo/Francois Nascimbeni)

The Islamic Revolution in Iran ensured that the West would never again be carefree friends with any old Muslim, lacking either oil or geo-strategic assets. In fact, even before Grand Ayatollah Khomeini's return home and while being in the throes of the Cold War, Jimmy Carter's foreign policy adviser National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski attempted to transform an "arc of crisis" into an "arc of Islam" engulfing and throttling the Communist world. Erstwhile chief of the Iran Desk at the US State Department Henry Precht put it like this, Zbig's big idea was that “Islamic forces could be used against the Soviet Union. The theory was, there was an arc of crisis, and so an arc of Islam could be mobilized to contain the Soviets". But the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the concomitant fall of Communism and socialist movements all around permitted God to stage a comeback in a big way. The end of the Cold War also ended the certainty of ideological convictions and political doctrines of most stripes, but religion instead remained standing as a sole beacon of hope in a world of despair and disarray.
God is back!

Suddenly, bereft of Communist conviction, Russians returned to the ample bosom of the Orthodox Church and nominally atheist or agnostic Western Europe rediscovered either Protestant or Catholic Christianity or alternatively engaged in all manner of New Age spirituality or other new-fangled religious fads and conversions. At the same time, Zbig's groundwork had paid off tremendously, and Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan had all embraced Islam with a particular fervour, a passion that was to lead to the emergence of the beard-wielding and wife-beating Taliban and to the prominence of a certain Saudi scion of wealth, arguably responsible for the tumbling of certain Twin Towers and a worldwide SPECTRE-like terror franchise known as Al-Qaeda.

A Gendarmerie criminal identification van is parked in front of an Avia gas station in Villers-Cotterets, north-east of Paris, on January 8, 2015, where the two armed suspects from the attack on French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo were spotted in a gray Clio. (AFP Photo/Francois Nascimbeni)

And here we are today, in 2015, when the Middle East is in turmoil on account of yet another beard-loving terror group referred to by the acronym ISIS or simply called the Islamic State, while supposed branches of the original bogeyman franchise continue plying their deadly trade. The Islamic State caught the West's attention by means of internet-spread video clips of beheadings of a few journalists and other hapless Westerners, leaving the countless Syrian and Iraqi citizens left headless confined to the dustbin of forgetfulness. While, just a few days prior to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the AP reported that "Al Qaeda militants bombed an office of Shiite Houthi rebels south of Yemen's capital Sunday [January 4], killing six Houthis and wounding 31". And lest we think that only the West produces journalists and/or men and women working in the media, the AP report also records that "one of the dead was a journalist who worked for a Houthi-affiliated television station". Also in an attempt to show that ISIS is not the only player in the field craftily utilizing the interwebz and social media, "Al Qaeda's local affiliate in Yemen claimed responsibility in a statement posted on its Twitter account". For good measure and possibly jumping on the bandwagon, the masked Charlie Hebdo gunmen told a man in the street: “Tell the media that this is Al-Qaeda in Yemen", linking the heart of Paris with the outskirts of Sana'a.
Islamophobes & Islamofascists

Zbig's groundwork and Willy's pronouncements all but led to the rise of Islamophobia in the West and across the wider world via the good offices of the corporate media spreading the message and fine-tuning the image of the bogeyman. But, one could argue that Islamophobia is but a new term to describe an age-old reflex, as I wrote back in 2010: "nowadays . . . commentators and politicians alike tend to forget national or ethnic identifiers, instead opting for religious markers, and thus speaking about the Muslim other present in [the West], the Muslim other whose presence and actions are incompatible with Western civilization and alien to the Judeo-Christian tradition which provides the framework for much, if not all, of Europe’s culture and identity. The professor of sociology, scholar and expert in Islamic matters, Stefano Allievi rightly remarks that the “immigrant … has progressively become ‘Muslim,’ both in his/her perception by the host societies and in his/her self-perception.” Today, Europeans express their dislike of the “other” in religious and/or cultural terms. This has led to the creation of a new term that is oftentimes not even associated with racist sentiments and/or reflexes: Islamophobia. But we should be clear about this: Islamophobia is nothing but a new name given to the age-old reflex of racism".

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security advisor. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

As indicated by Allievi, Muslims, either living at home in the Middle East or elsewhere or as immigrants in the West, now also feel strengthened in their own identity as adherents of the Prophet Muhammad and his creed. And, as I wrotelast September, "children of Muslim parentage living in Western Europe are thus faced with Islamophobia or xenophobic racism on a daily basis; a circumstance which arguably leads to less than successful educational careers (oftentimes steered towards vocational or technical training), in turn followed by bleak job prospects and a culture of dependency (on either family or state-provided assistance). Coupled to this less than rosy outlook is the fact that these young men more often than not succumb to sheer and utter boredom, arguably relieving their tedium with bouts of playing violent video games offering a temporary escape while boosting crumbled egos. Societal pressure thus pushes these youngsters in the direction of Islam and, given parental and family background, these young men frequently embark on a journey of self-discovery leading them to recognizing Jihad as their true cause making their empty lives full and meaningful". In this way, the so-called home-grown terrorist is born these days either travelling to the Jihadi frontline in the Middle East or, as occasionally encountered, homing in on easy targets locally - underground trains as in the case of 7/7 or offices used by fierce pen-wielders.
The chickens have come home to roost

As expressed by the Independent's John Lichfield, the "Charlie Hebdo assault was a bizarre mixture of the chillingly professional and chaotic. The gunmen were calm, ruthless and heavily armed. On the other hand, they were extraordinarily feckless".

French President François Hollande spoke to the world and his nation subsequently declaring that the assault was "undoubtedly a terrorist attack", as if anybody had any doubts, adding that "several [other] terrorist attacks were thwarted in recent weeks".

Witnesses said that during their assault on the satirical newspaper offices, the suspects – the brothers Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi - shouted things like “We have killed Charlie Hebdo” and “We have avenged the Prophet”, apparently disclosing their motivation for carrying out their heinous acts. It remains to be seen whether they acted on their own or were told to target the Charlie Hebdo offices. However, given the fact that they knew who to shoot and kill, it seems that somebody must have briefed them beforehand and then released them out in the open to kill in the name of the Prophet. Whether this someone is actually an operative of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, or to use the American parlance Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), or merely some migrant of Muslim descent with a keen sense for tactics and awe-inspiring organizational skills employing the franchise name to maximize the attack's media impact, 2015 will probably go down in history as the year that Zbig and Willy's chickens have finally come home to roost in the cradle of civilization.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author


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